In politics, as in life, there are varying degrees of denials. But only one denial counts — a full, unequivocal one. And in the case of what Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) knew about sexual abuse happening while he was a coach for the Ohio State University wrestling team decades ago, he has yet to give one.
That could complicate things for Jordan, specifically with whether his GOP colleagues have his back.
“I never saw, never heard of, never was told about any type of abuse. If I had been, I would have dealt with it,” Jordan told Fox News on Friday night of allegations by seven former Ohio State wrestlers that as assistant coach there, he knew or must have known of misconduct surrounding the team.
But when Fox News host Bret Baier asked Jordan to explain why more than a half-dozen wrestlers insist that sexual misconduct was discussed on a regular basis in the locker rooms, Jordan had this to say: “Conversations in a locker room are a lot different than people coming up and talking about abuse. No one ever reported any abuse to me.”
For something as serious as sexual abuse, that sounds to any logical listener like splitting hairs. In what situation would you hear about your own wrestlers feeling violated sexually and think they were just joking, or it wasn't worthy of following up?
Jordan appeared to deny, later in that Fox interview, that he heard anything in the locker room:
BAIER: So did you hear it in the locker room?
JORDAN: No. No. No — no type of abuse. We did not hear that. And if we had, we would have dealt with it.
But he hasn't entirely put the issue to rest by explaining how he missed out on those conversations.
One thing is clear among wrestlers who have talked to the media, even those who have defended Jordan: There was rampant sexual misconduct and abuse happening with and around them. The Washington Post's Elise Viebeck reports that the then-athletic-director at Ohio State actually moved the wrestlers out of the community showers to avoid voyeurs. Ohio State is investigating its former sports physician, Richard Strauss, who has been accused of groping athletes, including wrestlers.
So was Jordan oblivious to all this? Several wrestlers have said it defies logic for him to claim he was. “There's no way unless he's got dementia or something that he's got no recollection of what was going on at Ohio State,” former UFC wrestling champion Mark Coleman told the Wall Street Journal.
And perhaps even more damning for Jordan: Coleman is one of at least five out of seven Jordan accusers who say they like their former coach. Several describe him as a friend, reports NBC News, which talked to four. Accuser Shawn Dailey said he donated to Jordan's first political campaign. He's also one of Jordan's most direct accusers, telling NBC he was part of conversations with Jordan where the abuse was discussed.
That undercuts Jordan's theory that some of these wrestlers are out to get him politically. One of the wrestlers who originally alleged that Jordan knew what was happening, Mike DiSabato, has had a long-running legal battle with Ohio State over licensing, and Politico reports he's had run-ins with Jordan's family. But even he tells NBC News: “I considered Jim Jordan a friend.”
Yet Jordan is claiming politics has a role in all this.
“I think the timing is suspect,” he said on Fox. “When you think about how this whole story came together after the [Deputy Attorney General Rod J.] Rosenstein interview, or — or hearing with this — with this whole talk about the — the [House] speaker's race.”
Jordan got some back up Monday when six former Ohio State wrestling coaches released a statement saying "none of us saw or heard of abuse of OSU wrestlers."
It should be obvious by now that this will complicate whether Jordan’s congressional colleagues stand by him as they come back this week to work and face questions about Jordan. He hasn't given them a clear reason to believe him over seven wrestlers, the majority of whom say they like Jordan.
As Jordan himself referenced, that could complicate any efforts by him to lead House Republicans after House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) retires at the end of this year. In other words, Jordan’s future as leader of his party — or even his conservative wing of the party — could be in question, depending on how much benefit of the doubt his colleagues give him.
Jordan already had an uphill battle to win over the rest of House Republicans, a sizable number of whom have been frustrated over the years by Jordan’s wing of the party's opposition to spending bills, health-care deals and, just two weeks ago, moderate Republicans’ efforts for an immigration overhaul.
Plus, we are living in an era when knowledge of sexual misconduct without swift action has cost lawmakers their jobs. Nine members of Congress have lost their jobs over allegations of sexual misconduct in six months.
The nearest parallel to Jordan's situation may be that of Rep. Elizabeth Esty (D-Conn.). She announced in April that she wouldn't be seeking reelection after The Washington Post and other news outlets revealed that she let her chief of staff stay on the job for three months while knowing he was accused of threatening to kill a fellow staffer whom he had dated.
Esty wasn't directly involved in the alleged misconduct, but her knowledge of it was enough to force her out of Congress.
No one is calling on Jordan to resign, though Viebeck reports outside watchdog groups are asking the House's independent ethics office to investigate.
This week we'll find out whether Jordan's sort-of denials and “they're-out-to-get-me” theories are enough to keep his colleagues on his side. What they decide could make or break Jordan's political future.